Originally Published in Arkansas Life Magazine, Fall 2019
I was going to be late.
I misjudged the time it would take and there was no way around the fact that I wasn’t going to make my appointment on time.
I hate being late.
My meeting was at Subiaco Abbey with Father Reginald Udouj [pronounced U-Dodge]. We’d corresponded back and forth via email, and he cut out some time for me this afternoon. But the stress of being late was starting to frustrate me. Being on time is to be a professional and being late was to make a bad first impression. I didn’t have an excuse for my tardiness and I began rehearsing the apology in my head.
He was waiting for me in the common area of the Coury House, a guest house at Subiaco that resembles a small hotel, sitting on a couch, wearing the traditional black habit worn by Benedictine monks. He was middle-aged, with thinning hair, a grey beard and a voice that had just enough gravel mixed with southern drawl to add a richness to most everything he said.
He was in no hurry and made my apology seem unnecessary before it had left my mouth.
I don’t know what you think of when you think of monks. Your brain may go back to the middle ages of silent men in robes, chanting by candlelight within the dark walls of a monastery. You may envision something of a secret society carved out of a Dan Brown novel. Or your brain may go back to Monty Python’s cloaked men whacking themselves in the heads with wooden tablets. The urge is to think of them as a people set apart, mystical. Mysterious.
Years ago, I attended the Easter vigil at Subiaco with my wife. It was a cold March evening and a big fire had been lit outside the chapel. Hundreds of people had gathered around the fire, the fog of their breath illuminated in the night by the glow of the flames. Soon we would all light our candles by the fire and then silently walk into the darkened cathedral. Person by person and candle by candle, slowly illuminating the room. From darkness would come light. It’s somber, it’s beautiful and full of symbolism.
As I stood waiting with my candle, I watched as a group of men in black robes gathered around in a circle. Their heads were bowed. They cast a vision of everything you might imagine monks being. I eased closer, trying to confirm the stereotype. And that’s when I heard them erupt into cheers. That’s when I saw the small radio. That’s when I realized they were listening to a March Madness basketball game.
That’s when the illusion shattered.
The monks at Subiaco are something more complex than the box into which I try to make them fit. There is something uniquely countercultural about their lives. They defy what you want them to be, but once you get beneath the surface, you realize that they are something more than you imagined.
It was that countercultural nature that had brought me to the abbey. I was there to make arrangements with Father Reginald to follow the monks of Subiaco around for a few days and see what I might discover. There was a question that had been on my mind for a while that they seemed to be uniquely qualified to answer.
Too often we drift away from our ambitions because we feel the need to take safer paths. We take the job that’s a little less stressful and pays a little more. We quit doing that thing we loved because we want to spend a little more time at home. We take a break from whatever it was we were chasing and then promise ourselves that we’ll get back to it once things settle. But that path wears deep and the longer you travel it the harder it to escape the eventual rut. Life gets softer and so do we.
I had spent the past few months covering the escalating humanitarian crisis on the U.S./Mexican border. For the first time in a long time I was in the middle of the biggest story in the nation. The only way I know how to explain it is that it felt like it was exactly what I was supposed to be doing. I’d been teaching journalism for years, but this wasn’t theory and this wasn’t a writing exercise. This was the real thing. I was alone with a camera and notebook talking to the people everyone else in the country was reading about at home.
That experience allowed me to take a fresh bearing of my own life and what I wanted from it. It allowed me to see the rut I’d dug for myself. Stepping away also allowed me to shut down all those offering unsolicited advice of what exactly they thought I should be doing with my days. Stepping away allowed me to do something meaningful on my own terms.
But then I had to return to a world that felt a lot smaller than I remembered when I left. The thing about growing is that you don’t fit back into the old boxes that seemed so comfortable before.
I had evolved, but I didn’t know how to take the rest of my life to that place. And I found myself asking how do I walk away from a life I’ve spent so many years building so that I can pursue something that I feel called to do? My mind has been a hurricane of thoughts and it’s become harder and harder to focus and I desperately needed to focus. I needed a space to come to terms with the next right answer.
I needed a quiet place.
We live in this world. This hyper-connected world. This world where everything is temporary and discerning what is genuine and what is social media pageantry has become a skill unto itself because truth, at times, seems unknowable. This world where faith in the institutions that once held us together is sliding farther and farther into cynicism and fatalism. This world where those we disagree with are turned into caricatures on cable news and we are bombarded with messages that tell us to pick a side.
We reach for our phones the moment boredom hits our minds because we can’t stand the silence. We keep scrolling and scrolling and scrolling for something that’s going to fill whatever it is we’re searching for. And the more we search, the more we start to understand that there was nothing to be found there anyway. We realize there is nothing external that is going to satisfy our thirst. We’re just gamblers playing a slot machine and waiting for the win that never comes.
The irony is that the thing that seems to be at the center of what so many are searching for is simply the chance to do something meaningful with the companionship of sincere human connection.
But, we can’t figure out how we’re missing it.
We’re kind of a mess.
Which is how I found myself at Subiaco talking to a monk about a question that had been bouncing around in my brain for a while: What if we walked away from it all? Not for a day. Not for a week and not for a year. But a lifetime.
What changes when someone gives up a life focused on the pursuit of family and career and instead commits to a lifetime of intentional poverty, service and a singular focus on something greater than himself?
This is why I’m here.
In the late 1870s, the office of the Arkansas State Land Commissioner and the railroad company were looking to increase the wealth of the largely undeveloped, western Arkansas. To increase wealth meant they needed to increase the population. The Arkansas River Valley was in a unique place at the time. The wounds and changes of the Civil War were still fresh to the east, and the newly established Indian reservations on the frontier of what is now Oklahoma caused anxiety for the western edge of the state. Judge Parker had just set down his gavel in Fort Smith and the 50-year-old state of Arkansas, and the country at large, were in a state of transition and expansion.
To do that, the Land Commissioner specifically sought out Germans. Their reputation for being efficient, productive and orderly made them, in the state’s eyes, ideal settlers. And in a plan worked out between the state and the railroad, land grants and loan options were established to make the land as appealing as possible. Now, they just needed a German group to spearhead the settlement. When the Mennonites declined the offer, the Catholic bishop in Little Rock got wind of the opportunity and contacted St. Meinrad, a Benedictine abbey in Indiana, with the idea of establishing a German Catholic settlement, and a monastery to attend to the spiritual needs of the settlers.
They did just that.
In December of 1877, St. Meinrad sent Father Isidor Hobi to scout the location and report back to the abbot. In a line that was later met with a degree of amusement and irritation, Father Isidor’s proclamation that Logan County was, “a paradise fallen from Heaven” sealed the decision to begin the process of establishing a monastery and starting the settlement.
On March 15th, 1878, three monks from St. Meinrad Abbey arrived at the land that would become Subiaco. They were Father Wolfgang Schlumpf, Brother Kaspar Hildesheim, and Brother Hilarin Benetz. Tired from the journey, they found a small log cabin and a dilapidated stable waiting for them. It wasn’t the paradise they expected, but it was a place to start building it.
What resulted over the next few decades was a steady movement toward self-sustainability of both the monastery and the surrounding community, a time punctuated with missteps, internal conflicts and changes of leadership. To add further hardship, the Arkansas climate was much more severe than they had been led to believe. Food and supplies were often in short supply, and more than once some of them wanted to abandon this ‘paradise’ and return home to Indiana. In other words, the whole thing was much harder than any of them had ever anticipated. To read their history is to discover that monks, like anyone else, are unmistakably human with all the baggage that entails.
Despite this, they remained tightly bonded as a community with a focus toward both the contemplative and physical jobs assigned to them. They worked and they prayed as is the practice of Benedictines. And over time, the monks, and the surrounding German Catholic settlers, built the Abbey at Subiaco and communities we see today.
The Order of Saint Benedict is unique among other religious orders in that they are a true monastic community. The process to become a monk requires years of discernment and education. It could be compared with an apprenticeship, with novices progressing through different stages until finally taking their solemn vows. What makes them true monastics is that their final vows are not to the church per se, but rather the monastery. Their vows are to the place they live. Benedictines will spend the rest of their living and serving their monastic community within that place. They will live their lives in mutual obedience to the abbot and the other monks. Their lives are pledged to their home.
From that time on, they give up everything else. Their job is the duties of the monastery and their family are the other monks. They have no responsibilities outside of the monastery. Nothing else to distract them. The commitment is for life and in exchange, the abbey takes on all the responsibility of providing what each monk needs to live and work. When their life is over, the cemetery behind the abbey will be their final resting place. They will be buried in a simple, wooden coffin and what few possessions they have, such as books or family photos, will be given away. The ideal monk, I am told, will own no more possessions than what would fill a simple cardboard box.
It’s easy to think this life would be tempting for someone running from something. But, it’s not about running from something. It’s about running to something.
The monastery sits on approximately 2,000 acres of farm, timberland and a watershed where the monks serve as caretakers, raising cattle and gardening in addition to providing water to the surrounding community. There is a vineyard where they grow grapes for their communion wine and like good Germans, a new brewery and tap room that is open to the public. There is also a bakery, a print shop, greenhouses, a wood shop and sawmill, all staffed by the monks.
From its humble beginning as a log cabin, Subiaco has transformed into a sprawling complex of native stone buildings and gardens. It’s something more reminiscent of a European castle from another time. In addition to the abbey, there is Subiaco Academy, a private college prep school for boys.
Despite all the activity, it’s quiet in this place. There is a different pace of life here. For the community, time is strictly regimented with days that follow a set routine, but that routine isn’t structured around efficiency and maximizing productivity. It’s built on a balance between work and prayer, that for Benedictines is central to their way of life.
The absence of distractions leaves room for the mind to focus. There is a distinct minimalism here that is worth noticing when the pressures of modern life are removed. For the monks, who no longer need to worry about where they will sleep, what they will eat or whom they shall spend their lives with, this void creates an intentional space for God.
A couple of weeks later I’m back at Subiaco walking the grounds with Father Reginald. It’s December and he isn’t dressed in the traditional black habit. Instead, he’s in work clothes more suited to farm life and mud. As we walk, I ask him what he did before coming to the abbey and how he’s changed since. I ask him about the balance of life as a monk and how the environment helped shape him into who he has become.
Father Reginald, like every other monk I asked, gave me a single answer.
“I really haven’t. I’m still the same person I always was.”
On one hand, I believe the sincerity of his answer. He sees the same man in the mirror that he saw when he was on the road as a salesman in his previous life. The others were the same. One monk was a real estate broker who had a taste for expensive cars. Another a business owner who ran a multimillion dollar company. Another was a lawyer, now living as a novice who had not yet taken his final vows. For all of the variations of their previous lives, there was something that called them to leave those worlds behind and toward this simple, monastic life.
It’s not just what they are now, but more what they are no longer.
To watch these men live life together is to watch men act like so many I’ve known. They like to joke with each other, pick on each other, laugh and swear and sit around drinking coffee together. Sometimes personalities clash. In that respect, these men are entirely normal. But, beneath that sits something else, a different way of viewing oneself that is fundamentally different from our modern world.
When I dug deeper, Father Reginald made an interesting statement. He said, “We farm but we aren’t farmers. We teach, but we aren’t teachers. We bake, but we aren’t bakers.”
Their identities remain separate from the things they do.
They are intentionally trying to be nothing. But nothing is actually something and ‘nothingness’ is a word and concept loaded with meaning.
In the book of Exodus, God gives specific instructions to the Israelites on the construction of the Ark of the Covenant. The ark would be used to carry the Ten Commandments given to Moses. But there was something else that is easy to overlook.
20 The cherubim are to have their wings spread upwards, overshadowing the cover with them. The cherubim are to face each other, looking towards the cover. 21 Place the cover on top of the ark and put in the ark the tablets of the covenant law that I will give you. 22 There, above the cover between the two cherubim that are over the ark of the covenant law, I will meet with you and give you all my commands for the Israelites. Exodus 25: 20-22
God would not be in the box. Instead, the space in between the angels’ wings, hovering above the box is where God would be found. This ‘space in between,’ within this emptiness is where their power could be found.
In graphic design, there is a concept called ‘white space.’ Basically, it means not to crowd every square inch of design space with stuff. It leaves room for the eyes to focus on the most important element of the design. The irony is that creating designs beautiful in their simplicity, designs that express something much larger isn’t easy. But, the simplicity of a good design is what gives it its power. It’s not so much the ink as it is the space in between.
I spent some time walking around the grounds. The monks were always happy to show me what they were doing, whether it be Brother Basil letting me taste his latest ale or Father Richard’s spicy habanero Monk Sauce, but they were also happy to leave me alone and so I wandered uninterrupted. The delicious smell of peanut brittle drifted through the air as many of them were busy in the bakery filling Christmas orders. As I walked around the hill, I noticed one of them sitting alone in a golf cart looking out over the horizon on the crisp December afternoon. He didn’t look over, he didn’t say hi. He was in his own place and within his own mind. Because for all the busyness of the season, there was still time to be made for quietly looking out over creation.
For this monastic community of men, that space in between becomes the key to unlocking an understanding of not only their focus, but why so many of us are lacking it.
Much of the chatter and noise that fill our lives and minds is absent from the Benedictine way of life. While they haven’t taken a vow of silence, much of their lives are spent quietly going about their work and prayer. Everything is slowed down and subdued. They don’t say much to each other as they pass within the halls of the monastery and some of their meals are eaten in silence. Other parts of the day are simply spent in quiet reflection, meditation and prayer.
The quiet becomes something they crave.
To return to my question of what has changed about these men who have let go of the pursuit of career and family, it is simply this; they have learned to be still. They have learned to listen. They have learned to quiet much of the chaos of their minds as they explore the space in between, to pursue the grace of God.
Their job, at its core, is to pray for the church and the world. To think about the relationship between their lives and grace from their point of view is to think about bandwidth. It’s tuning the dial so the station comes in clearer. It’s walking into a quiet space to have a conversation. It’s making sure nothing is interfering with the signal. For them, grace is the signal itself. Grace is the link to God. Grace is the residue from the Big Bang. A life of less, a life of minimalism helps keep that channel open. Their job as Benedictines is to pray in order to receive grace and channel it to others.
Father Reginald put it this way, “Our prayer is what we have in common. We pray so that if we see someone acting like an animal, we still see them as a child of God. Without the grace from the prayers, which comes from some…I don’t know? Big cosmic vibe or whatever. You know it’s just how we do it. That’s the reason. What we do has value. It can’t always be seen and can’t always be quantified. If I pray for someone with cancer, is going to cure their cancer? I don’t know. But, I know that it’s important.”
Outside, the church bells break the stillness of the evening. I’m sitting in the stone cathedral as the monks shuffle in for vespers. It’s the fifth and final time of the day they have come together as a community. Slowly and quietly they make their way to their places behind the altar. Black habits, with leather belts around their waists, some still wearing blue jeans and work boots underneath. There is no music playing and no one is speaking. There is only the creaking of seats and kneelers where they pray. Soon, they are singing and praying in unison. When it’s over, they leave as silently as they came.
After they are gone, I sit alone and try to collect my thoughts.
Here you want to speak quietly. This place was meant to carry sound and the environment forces you to consider your words. The sanctuary seems enormous in the darkness. The vaulted ceilings and stained glass disappear into the night. There is only the sound of my breath and soft sound of running water from the fountain.
Since I’ve been here, I left my phone in my room. Cell service is terrible here, plus I didn’t want the distraction. It took time, but eventually the anxiety of reaching for it every few minutes was replaced by a relief from the stresses it brings to my mind.
I sit and I listen.
I try to be still. I fidget in my seat. I try to calm the chaos. My mind gets distracted. I try again. And then again. I start asking myself questions. Who am I beneath the surface? What is this chaos keeping me from becoming? Why do I cling to it? What am I afraid of losing? What if I don’t get…?
And then, I stop. Something tells me the questions are the chaos.
I stop trying to fight the quiet of this place.
I settle back into my seat. I acknowledge my anxieties. I acknowledge my distractions. I list them in my mind and reflect.
I think about their evolution. I think about my own.
It’s less about who I am now, and more who I am no longer.
In that moment. I listen to my breath. I listen to the water.
Alone in this place, there’s something I feel. Call it residue from the Big Bang. Call it a cosmic vibe. Call it grace.
All I can say is that for a moment my mind was still. I wasn’t thinking about my job. I wasn’t thinking about obligations. I wasn’t thinking about anything at all.
For a moment, I was looking through the darkness at the space in between.